LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Hartley Elementary lunch trays were full of color Wednesday.
And the lunch ladies donned gold pins, a nod from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it approves of the oranges and kiwi, the spinach and carrots, the whole-wheat tortillas, and yes, even the mini corn dogs.
"Nebraska and Lincoln Public Schools are ahead of the game," Darlene Barnes, the USDA's food and nutrition services regional administrator, told a gymnasium full of Hartley students. "I'm going to tell your story to the people in Washington and around the nation."
The story is this: Hartley and six other LPS schools reached gold status in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge, a federal program that recognizes schools that have nutritious lunches, as well as good physical education and wellness programs. They are the first schools in the state to reach the second-highest status in the challenge, which carries with it a $1,500 award for each school.
The USDA recognized the schools as new nutrition requirements for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program go into effect this year, meaning schools must serve more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
The awards, however, are based on practices before the new requirements took effect, Barnes said.
The challenge program began in 2004, but in 2010 — when first lady Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign — schools received money along with the recognition.
Other Lincoln elementary schools that reached gold status were Beattie, Belmont, Brownell, Kooser, Norwood Park and Pershing. Twenty LPS schools achieved silver status, which netted $1,000 awards, and seven hit bronze status and got $500 awards. The money goes to the schools' nutrition programs.
Barnes said the challenge, which recognized more than 4,000 schools nationwide, was a way to move them toward the new requirements, and Hartley and the other Lincoln schools were well on their way before they took effect.
At LPS, the biggest difference between this year and last is that students get larger servings of fruits and vegetables, with the option of two servings of vegetables, said Edith Zumwalt, LPS director of nutrition services. Elementary students must take at least one fruit serving.
Desserts have disappeared from elementary school lunches; they were served once a week in the past. Middle and high school students who want dessert must buy it a la carte, as they have in the past.
Salad bars have been replaced with fruit and vegetable bars, which no longer offer unlimited access to such garnishes as croutons, sunflower seeds, bacon bits and cottage cheese — all proteins. And schools now have a maximum amount of protein they can serve, depending on grade level.
Barnes, responding to critics who have said students — especially those in low-income schools — should not have such calorie limits, said those students also have access to school breakfasts, after-school snacks and dinners. And guidelines that encourage healthier habits are good for all students, she said.
At LPS, about 26,000 students eat school lunch, 6,000 eat breakfast and about 125 participated in a supper program that started last year at Park Middle School, Zumwalt said. Other students get snacks and fruits in after-school and day care programs. More than 15,000 K-12 students participate in the free- and reduced-lunch program.
Dakota Florez, a Hartley fifth-grader and budding football player with a passion for defense, said he liked school lunches — especially the ham and cheese wraps on whole-wheat tortillas.
As for the changes, he's only noticed one.
The spaghetti noodles are cut up now, not long and slurp-able. And he's OK with that.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com